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Why the government’s £1.5bn culture bailout still leaves it with an economic headache

The immediate future for restaurants, pubs and clubs around cultural destinations is no less bleak than before. 

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The British government has announced a £1.5bn package of grants and bridging loans to help the arts survive the coronavirus lockdown and recession. 

The bailout has been welcomed by cultural leaders and artists, and is generous by international standards. (There is some confusion arising because other countries announced their packages for the arts at the same time as their overall business support programmes – which is why you are seeing some people talking of a £7bn package in France, for instance.) 

The reason the sector badly needs this money is that most cultural institutions have been told they have to remain shut and many more will be unable to open in a viable way for some time to come. It makes economic sense, too: our genuinely world-leading creative industries are magnets for tourism, both domestic and international, and are a major contributor to the British economy, directly or indirectly.

But that the bailout is required highlights the difficulty – perhaps the impossibility – of the government’s plan to reopen the economy. While you can fairly argue that even our current rate of reopening should be delayed until we have a fully functioning system to test, trace and isolate new cases of Covid-19, the government has opted to keep a number of institutions shut because of their potential to spread the virus.  

The problem, though, is that the benefits of the arts aren’t simply direct. When do I go to the pub? Generally before going to a gig or a concert. It’s not a coincidence that so many of the country's restaurants cluster around theatres and concert halls. Protecting our artistic institutions makes it easier for new restaurants, pubs and clubs to emerge in the areas around them once they can reopen as normal. But it doesn’t mean that the immediate future for restaurants, pubs and clubs around cultural destinations around the UK is any less bleak this morning than it was last night – and leaves Rishi Sunak with a hell of a task for his mini-Budget on Wednesday if the country's restaurants and bars aren't to all go the way of Café Rouge. 

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

How the Covid-19 crisis has left seafarers in a desperate plight

Crews across the world have been working without relief for up to 15 months – a situation that resembles forced labour. 

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When Stephen Gudgeon stepped in to captain a ship for three weeks in March, to cover for a colleague who had to go home to Croatia to resolve some personal issues, he did not expect to be there three months later. Borders closed and countries went into lockdown as the Covid-19 pandemic spread around the world. “We went back to Qatar and there was nothing moving, we couldn’t get ashore, we couldn’t do crew changes,” he explains. Not even the maintenance workers and inspectors could come aboard, placing a strain on the safety of ships. “We weren’t even seeing anybody.” The same was true when they went on to South Korea. Across the seas, ship crews were finding themselves trapped on board.

Seafarers can work a maximum of 11 months at sea, according to international law. In normal times, 100,000 will finish their contracts each month and go home to their families to be relieved by another crew for another 11 months. But that system was suspended in March under force majeure (extraordinary events beyond your control that enable you to break a contract). Now some crews have been working 15 straight months with no end in sight. It is a situation that increasingly resembles forced labour. 

What they are transporting is 90 per cent of all world cargo. That includes energy (oil and gas), food, medical supplies and component parts for industry. “No one seems to know where things come from,” says Mark Dickinson, head of the Nautilus International maritime union, “we are suffering from our own invisibility.” When countries went into lockdown and started introducing quarantine measures, seafarers were not part of the equation, despite the crucial role they play. Nautilus and other industry bodies have been lobbying since to change that. 

The shipping industry swiftly issued a set of protocols endorsed by the International Maritime Organisation to try to ensure the safe repatriation of seafarers. This, they argue, means force majeure no longer applies and that governments can safely restart crew changes. Gudgeon managed to leave his ship and be relieved in Milford Haven, but the incoming captain had to fly there in advance and spend two weeks in lockdown (this has now been reduced to a week with a Covid-19 test). Some of the crew on his ship had been on board for eight or nine months without leaving the ship when Gudgeon disembarked a month ago, and those sailors are still there because their home country has closed its borders.  

“It’s hard to stress the impact of a delay in your return home,” says Dickinson. A few days or weeks is not unusual, but seafarers are being told they have to stay on indefinitely because no one knows when the pandemic will end. The mental health impact has been catastrophic. There have been reports of resignations, crew fights and suicides. In Qatar, Gudgeon explains, his company is moving seafarers who have been on ships the longest on to other ships that are going to ports, so they can be relieved. “It’s a logistical nightmare,” he says. Initially, Gudgeon adds, the crew were in “two minds” about whether to return home because of the quarantine period and the relative safety from infection they had on board a ship. That quickly changed as concerns about their families grew and their wellbeing suffered. “They were tired, they were very, very tired,” he says. 

On board, facilities vary from ship to ship. Most have TVs in cabins, internet access is common but often poor quality, and some crews have to pay for the service. During the pandemic it has been a double-edged sword, keeping seafarers connected with their families but underlining their powerlessness to help them. “I’ve got guys, grown men, coming to my cabin and crying because they want to go home, or because somebody at home is ill, and I just can’t do anything about it,” explains Gudgeon. 

Herbert, a Peruvian seafarer, had signed on for ten months but three months into this spell the pandemic “destroyed all our plans”. He was locked down on board for 110 days without anything to do except work, “like a prisoner”. There was no smoking or drinking on board either. “Sometimes you are already tired being on board,” he says, but the lack of news or information about going home made it worse. Eventually, the Peruvian embassy in London got in touch to let him know they were organising flights back and the company paid for his flight home.

Panama, the country under which the largest number of ships in the world sail, announced in June that it was extending the maximum contract length by three months, before adding another three months, making a total of 17 months at sea. “At best it was insensitive, at worst it was a flagrant breach of international law and tantamount to forced labour,” says Dickinson. 

For the relief crews, their work contracts mean that if they are not on a ship, they are not paid and able to support their families. Even for some of those seafarers who have been relieved, it is unusual for them to happen to disembark into their home country. They often find themselves halfway around the world and need to travel back home, something that has become increasingly difficult during the pandemic thanks to quarantines, closed borders and a lack of flights. “You can’t send seafarers from here to the Philippines if they’re just going to get stuck,” says Dickinson, describing it as a situation in which “your own government is stopping you coming home and stopping you leave”.

Even in the UK, pay and furlough arrangements are far from straightforward. Since the late 1980s, British seafarers have been employed offshore in places such as the Channel Islands, meaning companies do not pay national insurance. Bizarrely, this practice started as a way to ensure British shipping remained competitive, while the rest of Europe was able simply to introduce a tax exemption to accomplish the same. The result is that many British seafarers are largely invisible in the case of the furlough scheme because they are not employed or paid in Britain. 

The Philippines and India, two of the largest providers of seafarers, have both barred crew changes. Nor have they classified crews as “key workers”, despite the large amount of income from remittances. This contrasts with countries such as Singapore, Sri Lanka and Canada, where restrictions are being relaxed in order to relieve the pressure. One of the side effects is that without workers from the Philippines, ships are recruiting seafarers wherever they can, with Ukraine being a popular choice. 

Shipping is legally complex. A ship can be owned in one country, fly the flag of another, be staffed by a multinational team of seafarers, and carry cargo between two countries, travelling through many more along the way. But a system of workarounds has been devised to reduce costs. For example, the most common flag a ship will fly is that of Panama, followed by the Marshall Islands and Liberia. This means the taxes and duties for shipping companies will be low. The problem is that when something goes wrong, these “flag of convenience” states tend to have neither the diplomatic power nor the will to ensure the protection of the crews on board. 

On ships, captains are being forced to make some of the hardest decisions of their careers. When things go wrong, Dickinson says, it is the captains who are criminalised, not the companies or the governments who put them in this situation. Do they persist with a crew that is increasingly physically and mentally ill? Gudgeon became so concerned about fatigue among the crew on his ship and the threat to safety that it posed, that he found ways within their contracts to achieve longer rest periods and made productivity a secondary concern. He believes fellow ship captains will be seriously considering using “master’s overriding authority”, a safety protocol that allows a captain to overrule orders from the company, charterer or port authority for the sake of the ship’s safety.

It is something Gudgeon has done only three times in 40 years at sea. “It’s got to the stage where ships may have to stop in order to allow people on board to have some rest,” he adds. 

There is also the very real risk that companies that own ships will go bankrupt and leave crews stranded in financial limbo. In 2018, an Indian captain and his crew were stuck on their ship docked in Great Yarmouth for 15 months waiting to be paid and unable to leave. In Bristol and Essex, the crews of six cruise ships went on hunger strike in June to put pressure on the companies that owned them to pay their unpaid wages, leading the Maritime and Coastguard Agency to board them.  

The fallout from the crisis is likely to take years to resolve. Dickinson believes many seafarers will be pondering whether to continue working in the sector. “The industry has been shown to be completely unprepared for these types of events,” he says. Part of the solution, he thinks, is better use of more localised labour rather than the complicated system that exists at present. The flags ships sail under and the diplomatic support that offers is another issue that will discussed in the coming years. But the immediate issues are the most pressing. “There is some light at the end of the tunnel, but we’ve got some way to go, because every month is another month without crew changes,” Dickinson concludes.

Samir Jeraj is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman

In the white world of gardeners and farmers, growing food feels like a radical act

An organic food grower based in East Sussex writes of the racism she has experienced in her seven years working with nature.

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We watched long-tailed tits skip from branch to branch of a holly bush. We paused with held breath, unsure whether they were yet to sense our presence or were paying us no mind. Snub-beaked fluff balls with elegant tails, the rose blush of their bellies visible in brief glimpses afforded by the moments of sunlight breaching the woodland canopy. These woods are all verdure and luminosity. Silhouettes of leaves perform like shadow puppets on the path as we pilgrims pass through gently in holy silence. It is temple, shrine and church.

I imagined, I hoped, that we were alone. Just us, our footsteps, our love, and no-one to remind us that we were walking trodden paths. But a man was coming our way, older than us by double and wearing a panama hat. I step off the trail and veer into the woods to give him two metres and I catch sight of that familiar old scornful glance.

I tried to greet him, to force him to acknowledge my existence but he refused. He received Sam’s hello with a squeezed-out courtesy while I stood in the forest gutter.

It was a nearly-nothing interaction. One of many I’ve had with people who don’t want to look at me. A passing regard with a hint of suspicion, a quiet denial of my humanity. Easy to refute, to explain away, to minimise until I question my sanity, my memory. Yet my long dance with not belonging reminds me not to dismiss those grazes with an unwelcome party. It’s turned ugly before and I’m never quite sure when it will again.

I don’t belong here, in the land upon which I was born. No matter what you say, I don’t belong. If it hurts your ears to hear it, imagine how much it has hurt my heart.

I’m reminded when I hear echoes of the old "go back to where you came from" song or chance upon the sentiments of an eco-fascist. I don’t know how to separate myself from the racism I see around the world, I certainly can’t separate myself from how it manifests in this country. Nor would I want to.

It’s often troubling to work in the mostly white world of horticulture and agriculture. We POC growers and gardeners are in the minority and are virtually invisible in the collective imagination of who is expected to work with plants, be outdoors and feel connected to nature in the UK.

When you scratch beneath the surface, the tentacles of colonialism can be found in abundance. From the prospecting of indigenous medicinal knowledge, to the appropriation of ancient agricultural practices and the historical pillage of the plants that filled botanical gardens and plantations, and which still inhabit our gardens to this day.

When you hear about the problems caused by a "non-native and invasive" plant species, I urge you to find out how that plant found its way to these shores and interrogate the heavy language you use to describe where it came from and how it grows.

I didn’t become a food grower because I thought it was political. I did it because it was delicious and uplifting and because I had the privilege to choose to. And yet now, for me, growing food is a radical act. It has brought me to an understanding of my place in the natural world and allowed me to feel held and upheld when all else has left me unearthed.

I have turned towards the land, the site of my ancestors’ oppression and dared to plant seeds into the earth of a country that erases my history. I push my hands into the soil as an act of reclamation, of self-determination, of gesturing towards the possibility of establishing roots on my own terms because the land has chosen me and I have chosen her, no matter the prejudices of those who dwell here too.

I grow plants because I believe it is in my blood to do so. I grow plants to reclaim the space that slavery and indentured labour robbed us of. 

Nature meant little to me until seven years ago. I grew up fearful of it, not understanding its relevance, never seeing anyone like me at ease with it.

Yet nature has become the source of my steadiness, my meaning, my power. It is my everything despite having fallen for it in countries stained with the labour and blood of my kin and those of many people of colour. It is my everything despite all the stories I believed that said it "wasn’t for me".

I rarely feel welcome, and it is not always safe.

My attempts to move towards nature with a heart yearning for communion are often clumsy and troubled but, through my uneasiness, I return again and again and again to take my place in her embrace as is my birthright – and yours.

Ensuring we can be safe and find peace in nature is not as important an issue as police brutality and murder. Denial of access to nature is nowhere near as grave an injustice as the Windrush scandal. But it is, to me, deeply important and if it continues to be proven that nature upholds our wellbeing then surely it’s about time we spoke honestly about what keeps it out of reach for some and not others?

I’ve finally stopped craving belonging on this island. I accept that, although it is the most familiar place to me, it will never be home.

But nature, even here, is mine because I am hers.

Claire Ratinon is an organic food grower based in East Sussex, and author of the upcoming book How to Grow Your Dinner: Without Leaving the House. Find her on Instagram @claireratinon.

This essay, republished with permission, originally appeared in her newsletter, What A Time To Have A Garden.

Covid-19 has exposed the UK’s public toilet crisis

The rise of outdoor socialising has exposed a previously hidden problem: the UK has privatised its toilets. 

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Near to my home in east London there is a park. Near to that park, there is a pub, which has been offering takeaway beers and cocktails, plus a number of supermarkets which offer much the same and, hey, why don’t we just go there it’s cheaper. Inside that park there is no toilet. There is, however, a wood, which borders the park on two sides.

So it is that, on sunny evenings of late, along with the local families, football teams and so forth, the park has been stuffed with young Londoners enjoying a socially-distanced drink. And on one evening recently, one of them went into the woods, under the ostensible impression that, the further into the trees he went, the less visible he was, found himself a set of railings against which to do his business, and didn’t notice that he was urinating out of the park and into the street, a position from which he was visible not just to passers-by like myself, but almost certainly to anyone on board the trains departing the London Overground station over the road. 

At which point I did what any true born Londoner would do: ignored him, crossed the street and decided to treat it as a funny anecdote, rather than a horrifying story about what is, let’s be clear about this, a drunk man, pissing in the street.

As spring has turned to summer, with no end of the Covid-19 crisis conceivable, let alone in sight, one of the coping strategies employed by urbanites who live with friends or partners or alone has been to move their social lives outside. We’ve had a run of good weather, and it’s relatively hard to spread the virus outside, and there’s only so long that people who live alone, or in cramped homes shared with strangers, can be expected to cut themselves off from all forms of social contact without suffering complete emotional collapse. And so parks and riversides have begun to take on the role once played by pubs.

And by and large, it’s worked pretty well. In London at least (I can no longer remember the last time I left it to check on anywhere else), most people have kept their distance and taken their rubbish away with them afterwards. Civilisation has not collapsed. This is lucky because, even though the pubs began to reopen on Saturday (4 July), they’ll have severe constraints on their capacity, and many people will likely prefer to avoid enclosed spaces anyway. The park drinks phenomenon will persist for a while.

But there’s a problem, inadvertently highlighted by our drunken friend: the UK has privatised its toilets. In the late 19th century, the “nuisances” that drained directly into rivers or streets were replaced by hygiene-conscious councils with veritable palaces of public convenience, proper loos hooked up to the new-fangled water and sewage systems. They charged, yes (the phrase “spend a penny” was once literal); but once upon a time, according to a brilliantly titled report from the Royal Society of Public Health (RSPH), Taking the P***: The Decline of the Great British Public Toilet, many also had a free cubicle available for those who found themselves caught short. Toilet facilities were a public good.

As the 20th century wore on, however, and council budgets were increasingly strained, local authorities began outsourcing their toilets to private contractors, or simply selling them off. (One in another, trendier part of east London ended up as a nightclub, Public Life; the property was later put up for sale for a cool £990,000.) Austerity made things worse: between 2010 and 2018, BBC research found, councils closed 13 per cent of surviving public toilets; 37 were left with none at all.

This worked fine, as there were generally other facilities available, in shopping centres, stations or pubs; right up until a few weeks ago, when suddenly many of those other facilities weren’t available after all, but large numbers of people still needed them.

It’s at roughly that point that a drunk man somewhere in east London found himself pissing through a railing, and the Evening Standard declared it the “summer of the Shewee”, after sales of the device, which does exactly what you think, spiked by 700 per cent. 

The collapse in public toilet provision is not a new problem: that RSPH report, which found that a fifth of British people had found their movements restricted by concern about inadequate toilet facilities, dates from May 2019. But lockdown, and the rise of outdoor socialising that’s accompanied it, has shone a light on both how far public toilet provision has declined, and on how the effects of this problem are, Sheewee sales notwithstanding, gendered. 

So perhaps, when this is all over, we can have a conversation about how we can fix this. Some little luxuries in life are worth spending a penny on.

Jonn Elledge is a freelance journalist, formerly assistant editor of the New Statesman and editor of its sister site, CityMetric. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

Why support for Scottish independence has surged during the Covid-19 crisis

The autonomy demonstrated by the Scottish government has given voters an enticing taste of separation. 

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Nicola Sturgeon turns 50 this month. It’s one of life’s staging posts, a moment for taking stock, for weighing oneself in the balance – a time, as Martin Amis unromantically puts it, “to stop saying hi and to start saying bye”. 

Scotland’s First Minister is anyway among the more openly reflective national leaders. She shares, say, Barack Obama’s tendency towards contemplative self-excavation rather than Boris Johnson’s upbeat boarding-school boosterism. 

The personal and political lessons to be drawn from recent events are inevitably percolating in her mind. “I’m not going to come out of this exactly the same as I was when I went into it,” she tells Alastair Campbell in a new interview. “I think inevitably it is shifting my perspective on things. It’s making me re-evaluate what’s important in life and what’s maybe not quite so important, and I think it probably is lowering my tolerance to some of the nonsense of politics.”

She admits to being “a politician to my fingertips” and says she relishes the battle of ideas, “but a lot of modern politics is not really about that, it’s just about chucking mud at each other and forcing yourself to always believe the worst of your opponent. I think my tolerance of that, certainly at the moment, is a bit lower than it was previously and who knows I might get over that, but I hope not in some ways.”

If the half-century is a weighty personal milestone, it’s still a relatively tender age for a politician. Already, Sturgeon has been a frontbencher for 20 years, a cabinet minister for 13 of them, and first minister for the past five. One might think her story is largely written, that she will share the unsought fate with her generation of leaders of being defined by their response to Covid-19. But it’s not unthinkable she may yet transcend it.

The battle for Scottish independence – the key motivating cause of Sturgeon’s political life – remains unwon, but not unwinnable. Polls are regularly putting public support for a separate Scottish state at 50 per cent and above – the most recent found 54 per cent in favour, with almost 70 per cent support among 16-34 year olds. This has prompted former SNP strategist Kevin Pringle to suggest cheekily that it is Unionists who should now regard themselves as being in the minority position. He may not be wrong.

Back in April, I thought it possible the health and economic crisis would hurt the nationalist cause – that the Treasury’s emergency borrowing and spending, the unprecedented co-operation between Holyrood and Westminster, and pan-UK public solidarity with key workers and Covid-19’s victims, might strengthen head-and-heart support for the Union. The polls suggest this has not been the case.

Instead, the First Minister looks likely to go into next year’s Scottish parliament election with a strong wind at her back. There is no real likelihood that she will lose her job, and every possibility that a majority of the MSPs elected will be pro-independence (a new Panelbase poll suggests the SNP will win 74 of Holyrood’s 129 seats). 

This would mean the electorate has given Sturgeon a mandate for that second referendum. If Johnson maintains his current stance and refuses to allow one to take place, we will find ourselves in an unprecedented constitutional crisis which the SNP will prosecute for all its worth.

The UK government is finally getting serious about defending the Union. A Union Unit has been created in No 10, led by Michael Gove, to recast the case for being “better together”. Johnson has shown he is happy to aggressively challenge the SNP on devolved matters, while Whitehall is planning a spending programme intended to show Scots the advantages of staying in. The economic consequences of battling Covid-19 may yet prove serious enough to persuade enough voters north of the border that now is not the time for more constitutional upheaval and uncertainty.

Set against this is the significant level of autonomy demonstrated by the Scottish government during lockdown. Scotland has very much gone its own way, diverging on how to deploy the extra public spending, the tone of its national debate, and the timescale for easing restrictions: it has had a taste of what it’s like to make its own mind up in areas beyond the usual devolved competences. Sturgeon’s televised daily press briefings mean she has been presidentially omnipresent in the nation’s living rooms, a physical representation of the fact that she has remained doggedly at the wheel throughout, in visible contrast to the more erratic Johnson and the stuttering performance of his cabinet. Her personal trust levels are high (Sturgeon’s approval rating stands at +60 compared to -39 for Johnson), and her international reputation enhanced.

Ultimately, the data may show many of the same mistakes were made in London and Edinburgh, and there is no shortage of criticism of Sturgeon’s decision-making through the crisis, or of her administration’s performance more broadly. But she has performed one of the key tasks of a leader in hard times with aplomb, displaying commitment and empathy, taking responsibility, and doing what she believes to be right even when it has been unpopular.

Scotland’s constitutional future will in the end be decided by a relatively small proportion of its population – the 10 per cent or so of floating voters who are there to be convinced by the competing merits of union versus independence. Wrapped into all this will be judgements on Johnson and Keir Starmer, on Brexit, on values, on that enticing taste of autonomy, on the economic gamble, on the culture war. 

The mud will fly, and will be flung by both sides, however distasteful this seems to the First Minister at present. The “nonsense of politics” will prove harder to avoid in her next big battle.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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